Skye Jethani: Tortured Conscience
A new survey shows most churchgoers support torture. What should pastors say?

A political dissident is arrested for leading a movement that threatens the stability of a region. He is ambushed and apprehended by his enemies, detained without a public trail, and tortured by soldiers at the command of their political leaders. No, I'm not describing Kalid Sheikh Mohammad or any other detainee held at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I'm speaking of Jesus of Nazareth.

The fact that Christians draw their faith, life, and identity from a Messiah who was the victim of political torture seems ironic in light of new research by the Pew Forum that indicates 62 percent of white evangelicals believe torture of suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. The research shows that people who attend church regularly were more likely to rationalize torture than those who do not go to church.

How do we explain these findings? Are Christians being more influenced by Jack Bauer than Jesus Christ?

Lurking behind this passive support of government torture is a utilitarian ethic that believes the ends justify the means - torture is justifiable if the information attained will save innocent lives. But David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, points out a problem with this argument:

Evangelicals have been eager to reject utilitarian ethics when addressing other issues - embryonic stem-cell research, for example. Even if embryonic stem-cell research turned out to be the best way to cure Parkinson's disease, most evangelicals would oppose it, just as we would oppose abortion even if it were shown to reduce, say, food insecurity.

When it comes to defending the lives of the unborn, most evangelicals utterly reject utilitarian ethics. Life is sacred, and all people - even the unborn - are created in the image of God. But this belief is put to the test when the life in question is that of a suspected terrorist. Do we really believe all human life is sacred or only innocent life? Are all people created in God's image or only those not labeled "enemy combatants"?

Perhaps the condemnation of abortion and justification of torture found among our congregants is the result of pastoral teaching that is losing the forest for the trees. We have taught our people to oppose abortion, but have we failed to lift up the larger ethic of life's sanctity which applies far beyond the first, second, or third trimester? Maybe it's time for us to preach an ethic of life that stretches from the womb to the tomb - one that even encompasses the prison camps the lie in between.

May 15, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 61 comments

Steve B

June 02, 2009  8:50am

WWJT: Who Would Jesus Torture? By Doug Giles A Christian radio show host asked me the other day how I could, as a believer, be cool with waterboarding terrorists for intel crucial to our national security-or, as I like to call it, the implementation of the Irrigation for Information Act. Irrigation sounds so much more pleasant than torture, oui? Oui. ...

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Adam S

May 22, 2009  12:47pm

Joe and Quincy, no matter how many times you repeat it, your mis-representation of both God and the actual definition of torture do not make your versions true. Torture has a clear legal meaning, one that Cheney and others keep ignoring. Harm to other does not equal torture. It is not torture to kill someone that is trying to kill you or someone else when you are both armed. It is not torture for God to punish people according to his justice. To claim otherwise is actually very, very close to blasphemous. What is being talked about in this poll and in our current political discussion is the right of a group (in this case the US military or CIA) to hold a person without trial and then physically, or mentally harm them in order to obtain information or punish. This is not what God does according to scripture. There is a judgement, an all knowing all seeing God, so no hearsay options of having an innocent person. (Remember at this point in time more than 2/3 of those that have been held at Guantanamo have been released because they weren't guilty of anything (this was before Obama came into office.)

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May 22, 2009  11:33am

The author makes a conclusion by linking the torture of Jesus to his view. This is a blatant example of using the Scripture to justify personal view, or "the end justifies the means". The issue is much more complex than a simple poll. Let me use the example of the recent incident where a US ship was hijacked by pirates, and the US Navy Seal rescued the captain by killing three pirates in the lifeboat and arrested the fourth one. Did the Navy Seal commit torture by shooting and killing the pirates?

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May 22, 2009  10:08am

Hi Adam: To your point about punishment vs. torture, I don't really think there is an important distinction to be made here. There is no doubt that Hell is torture, eternal concious torment, and God is in charge of it. Now most of us would blanch at, say, torturing a thief daily for 50 years until he dies in prison. We'd rather hang him and be done with it. But it's different with God. God does not have a problem with torture! And the Bible tells us so. We're just afraid of it. We're just kind of soft today because of the influences of modern living and secular morals. Tough minded Christians who understand the faith and what's at stake realize that torture is part and parcel of the Master's grand design and we are to stand back in awe and reverance. The church has bifurcated into "Love" only Christians and "Wrath-Justice" Christians, and neither have the full story, though on balance it's much safter to err on the side of Wrath and Justice.

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Adam S

May 21, 2009  5:25pm

Quincy do you seriously believe that God tortures people? First you have some issues of definition. Torture as defined by US law is not about punishment. So God does not torture, as we are talking about because what is being done is not about punishment. I do not even want to go to your argument because it has so many issues with it. Two, I don't think there are any Christians today that think that Zwingli or the Spanish Inquisition were appropriate. They are prime examples of why torture does not work (in order to bring about confession). Torture succeeds in getting people to confess something, but it is just as likely that they are confessing to something that they didn't do as to something they really did. 3) Torture is not about greater good. That is a false argument. Ticking time bomb scenarios do not exist.

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May 21, 2009  4:52pm

Honestly, people need to get real. We imitate those whom we love and fear. We love and fear God Almighty. And, guess what? God Almighty tortures people. He is torturing billions of souls in Hell right now and billions more are certainly destined for that. He tortures them because His justice and holy satisfaction requires it. It brings about a greater good. It was God's will His only Son be tortured to bring about salvation! In the same way, can we not also justify torture? If, for believers, torture serves a greater good (to bring about repentance, confession and perhaps save lives, thus affording unbelievers more time to avoid going to hell), then maybe we ought to imitate our Master. It's only in modern times the church has become squeamish about torture. It was widely practiced, even by great Reformers like Calvin and Zwingli, throughout church history.

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Paul Dalach

May 21, 2009  12:51pm

Diderik, When I said "torture is a justifiable debate"...I mean that it is a conversation that is worth having and hashing out. Since I wasn't clear before, let me be clear in saying I'm glad the discussion has come up because I think the issue needs precision thinking that many people don't give it, on both sides. Forget legalities right now...think pure biblical ethics. Sadistic, pointless torture of innocents and abortion, I see some similarity. Non-maiming infliction of pain or fear on those who are 100% known to be guilty (if that knowledge were possible)...potentially defensible. At the least, arguably less unethical than sadistic torture or slaughtering children. Look, agreed that too many people have an American idolatry...they believe that our government can do no wrong and that anything that protects our lives is justified. I don't believe that. As I said many times before, what has gone on recently has been shameful. But the charge of pure hypocrisy has been targeted to evangelicals because of their rejection of abortion simultaneous to their embrace of "torture". And that's not a fair comparison. There are different ethical valuations of "torture". Sadistic torture of people, criminals or not, is very wrong. Brutal torture in the pursuit of saving lives is very arguably wrong, but there is a white element. Killing babies...okay? Millions of our children wiped out...a few detainees in Gitmo. Where's the real comparison? Maybe because, to us, the process a child's murder is cleaner and their voices silent. Maybe because the detainees have lawyers to, justifiably, squawk for them. But haven't heard anyone address that aspect of the article yet. Why is that?

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Adam S

May 21, 2009  11:28am

Sergey, surely you can understand that there is something fundamentally different between our actions against a person that is in custody and one that is actively fighting against us. It is the exact same difference between the policy beating an unarmed person in custody, vs pulling a gun on and shooting a person that is shooting back at you. We do not allow police to beat suspects just as we do not allow (legally) our military or CIA to torture people. Purely for practical purposes, why would someone surrender if they knew they were going to be tortured. That is a serious issue when we fight wars. We want the soldiers on the other side to surrender. And for those that will say that Al Queda aren't soldiers, I would say that it is even more important for them to surrender to us. And if actively argue that we should be torturing everyone that surrenders, then there will never be anyone that surrenders.

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May 21, 2009  11:22am

Well, I guess we shouldn't worry about the way the death penalty is inflicted either. Public drawing and quartering would be awesome! C'mon people. It's not about "bleeding hearts", it's about being better than those we fight. It's about the historical fact that we executed people for doing the very things we're doing now. It's about human decency in the face of indecency and evil. All this talk about being in a uniform or not, or spiritualizing this thing with saying "God used pain" is some of the worst sophistry I've heard yet from evangelicals.

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May 21, 2009  9:28am

Suppose a soldier wounds an enemy in a battlefield. His pain and consequences can be surely greater than those of waterboarding. Now what? Ban wars?

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